The Jurassic Park franchise fell into a long hibernation after 2001’s Jurassic Park III, and development on a fourth installment went on for so long that for awhile, it seemed like it might never happen. But that all changed in 2015 with Jurassic World, a new beginning for the series that starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard as the latest hopelessly outmatched humans hoping to stave off a wave of dino-distruction. To celebrate the recent release of the latest chapter int he Jurassic saga, we’ve decided to look back at the movies that led us here. Hold onto your butts — it’s time for Total Recall! [Updated 6/25/18]
Before the advent of computer-generated graphics, novelists had something of an upper hand over filmmakers: While writers have only ever been bound by their own imagination, a director’s ability to test the bounds of reality has always relied on the best efforts of his effects department — and while practical effects definitely have their place, they also have their limits. With 1993’s Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg proved the old rules no longer applied, taking Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel about the misguided efforts of a billionaire philanthropist (played here by Richard Attenborough) to bring dinosaurs back from extinction and turning it into a box-office bonanza driven by some of the most spectacularly lifelike special effects ever seen.
Of course, even the most amazing visuals can only go so far if a movie’s other elements are lacking. What made Jurassic Park so successful — and what continues to make watching it so much fun — is the way Spielberg brings Crichton and David Koepp’s screenplay to life with an outstanding group of actors that includes Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, and Laura Dern, as well as memorable appearances from Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight. It’s another of the escapist thrill rides that helped him build his empire — a souped-up Saturday afternoon serial in which an increasingly panicked team of scientists (Neill, Goldblum, and Dern) work to stave off the dinopocalypse that threatens to erupt after a corrupt employee (Knight) bungles his attempt to sell dinosaur embryos and a technical glitch leaves packs of our lethal predecessors running scot-free on an island near Costa Rica.
It all added up to a picture that left critics largely powerless to complain. Even if they were fairly quick to identify a general lack of depth in Jurassic Park‘s archetype-driven entertainment, they couldn’t deny its power; as Roger Ebert put it in his review, “You want great dinosaurs, you got great dinosaurs.”
Jurassic Park III was enough of a letdown that it took quite awhile for development on another sequel to start in earnest – and when it did, producers found themselves sorting through years of false starts with storylines that would have taken the franchise in some fairly odd directions (like the rumored Jurassic Park IV whose storyline centered on dinosaurs that had been trained as weapon-toting mercenaries).
In the end, Jurassic World took viewers right back where the saga started: Isla Nubar, where the ruins of Jurassic Park have given rise to a full-on tourist trap whose once-amazing attractions have become passé to unimpressed visitors. Seeking to goose revenue, the park’s CEO (played by Irrfan Khan) oversees the creation of a brand new, even more dangerous hybrid dinosaur, whose inevitable rampage forces a pair of panicked employees (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard) to race against time in order to prevent complete catastrophe.
While World didn’t wow critics like the original, most agreed it held up pretty well on its own as an efficient delivery mechanism for modern, CG-assisted popcorn thrills. “For much of its running time, Jurassic World plays like a great theme park ride,” observed Jacob Hall for the New York Daily News. “In an age of blockbusters that lumber like herbivores, it’s refreshing to see a movie as lean and mean as a velociraptor.”
Despite Jurassic Park‘s incredible success — and its sequel-teasing ending — Michael Crichton wasn’t all that interested in penning a follow-up novel at first, and only wrote 1995’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park after persistent badgering (including some from Park director Steven Spielberg, who had a vested interest in getting another installment out of the gate). Like its predecessor, The Lost World‘s screen adaptation diverges from its print companion in some important respects, but it’s still easy to detect the air of obligation that hangs over the whole enterprise, which helps explain why — although it was certainly a major hit — it failed to land with Park-sized impact.
Returning to the director’s chair and working again from a David Koepp screenplay, Spielberg brought Jurassic fans a story that injected a handful of new ingredients (including Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn) while retaining a few holdovers from the first film (most notably the returning Jeff Goldblum — as well as a bunch of CG-crafted prehistoric co-stars, of course). With InGen, the company behind Jurassic Park, in tatters, it’s discovered that there was a second island being used as a containment facility for freshly bred dinosaurs, and they’re running rampant — so the new CEO (Arliss Howard) decides to bring them to the mainland in order to turn them into a new revenue stream.
Chaos inevitably ensues, leading up to a third act that does everything it can to raise the stakes from the first film, but no matter how much bigger the action may have been (and despite the presence of Pete Postlethwaite, who always made everything better), the dino derring-do in The Lost World didn’t feel quite as fresh as Jurassic Park, and critical praise was far less plentiful the second time around. Even Owen Gleiberman, in his largely positive review for Entertainment Weekly, was forced to concede, “The movie, at its best, is good fun: deft, scary, engrossing. Yet it’s never great fun.”
The long wait between Jurassic Park III and Jurassic World may have been frustrating for some fans of the franchise, but it clearly had a positive impact on its critical fortunes — World‘s reviews weren’t anywhere near as rapturous as those that greeted the original, but they suggested there was still plenty of life in a series of films many believed had long since exhausted its supply of worthwhile ideas.
If the critical reception afforded the Jurassic World sequel is any indication, an extended downtime between sequels might actually be the key to success for this franchise. Three years later, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom continues the story started by its predecessor, reuniting Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard) — this time on a quest to save the dinosaurs from re-extinction and the nefarious plans of some DNA-splicing lunatics who clearly haven’t seen the earlier films. It’s all very exciting in the moment, but ironically for a series fueled by the idea that nature will always find a new way to get things done, Kingdom suggests this story might be content to run in circles on old ground.
Critics were mostly content with Fallen Kingdom‘s set pieces, and praised incoming director J.A. Bayona for playing up the franchise’s horror elements, but beyond all the roaring and running around, they felt it came up short — lacking a compelling story, fresh thrills, and increasingly reliant on CGI dinosaur spectacle over identifiable characters. “If this is the best the Jurassic series can manage,” warned Stephen Whitty for the New York Daily News, “it’s the real endangered species.”
The scientists of Jurassic Park were able to circumvent the laws of nature by bringing dinosaurs back from extinction; sadly, the filmmakers behind the Jurassic Park franchise were unable to similarly flout the law of diminishing returns, which put a dent in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and its successor, 2001’s Jurassic Park III.
Production was somewhat bumpy from the start. Director Joe Johnston, taking the reins from Steven Spielberg, didn’t have the luxury of working from a book by Michael Crichton, and was forced to contend with script problems that necessitated a complete overhaul mere weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. What he ultimately ended up with was a story that, like its predecessor, drew former Jurassic Park stars back into the fold in service of a plot that brought dinosaurs roaring back to the big screen.
This time around, Sam Neill and Laura Dern — both absent from The Lost World — reprise their roles as Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler (now Degler), although Dern’s appearance essentially serves as a pivotal cameo. Here, Grant’s shanghaied into returning to the re-prehistoric tropics under the guise of a surveillance expedition that will provide sorely needed funding for his research, only to discover he’s really been hired for a far more dangerous mission; his lack of enthusiasm for seeing dinosaurs again roughly mirrored the response of the critical community, whose growing disdain for the franchise corresponded with obviously dimming enthusiasm on the part of ticket buyers. Still, it’s hard to call a movie that grosses $368 million worldwide a flop, and Jurassic Park III does have its defenders: As Jeffrey Overstreet argued for Looking Closer, “It’s not art… it’s entertainment, and it knows it. Boy, does it entertain.”